Back to Montaigne

When I find myself in times of trouble,
I go back to read Montaigne.
Seeking words of wisdom,
Read some more…
(to the tune of Let It Be, with apologies to the Beatles)

Michel de MontaigneI was up late these last few nights reading Michel de Montaigne into the wee, dark hours. Although I used to read him rather frequently and found him an inspiration for several posts, some years back, I hadn’t picked him up in ages. But a passing mention in Sterne’s Tristam Shandy made me pick him up again starting with his long essay (69 pages in the Screech edition; 57 in the Frame translation) of “some verses of Virgil.” Which, in typical Montaigne fashion is less about the poet Virgil than about his views on aging, dying, sexuality, religion, marriage, virtue, honesty, and more. Strands of seemingly random thoughts woven into a longer piece. And, of course, abundantly sprinkled with quotations from a wide range of authors.

Montaigne’s greatness doesn’t lie with scientific breakthroughs, astounding discoveries, feats of endurance or strength: it lies with his ability and willingness to both question everything and to think through to his answers. Clearly, reasonably, openly, creatively. And then to put pen to paper and collect his thoughts for the world to read (the printing press has only been in use for just over a century when, in 1580, the Essays were first published). His essays are marvellously witty, thoughtful,  insightful, and remarkably down-to-earth, even more than 400 years later.

You have to admire his willingness to commit to paper his doubts and uncertainties, as well as his passions and his views. This was the century of the Reformation, the Counter-reformation, of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Martin Luther. The Roman Inquisition was in full swing, snaring Galileo, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and others in its repressive, orthodox net. Yet Montaigne wrote a spirited defense of the fifteenth-century theologian, Raymond Sebond, whose views about the nature of Christianity were under attack by church conservatives. That was a bold, and dangerous act.

Montaigne was, almost unheard-of for his time, frank and honest (sometimes brutally so) about his views, even when they ran counter to popular, church, or official opinions. His range of interests is broad, and he delights in throwing in tidbits from history, geography, agriculture, war, economics, fashion, philosophy… and in doing so gives us a picture of the 16th-century worldview (complementing that of my other favourite 16th-century author, Niccolo Machiavelli; but Montaigne is even more well-read — and even mentions Machiavelli twice).

Even when I don’t share his views, his faith, or his perspective — often, although not surprising given the chronological divide — I can respect his honesty, his integrity, and his passion for truth and understanding. But the sheer breadth of his vision and his willingness to ponder and question so many things and ideas accepted or rejected in his culture makes him heroic.

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The Cancer Diaries, Part 7

I don’t want readers to think I’m being narcissistic in writing these posts about my cancer or how it has affected me. Sure, I can be accused of being all sorts of things for writing my other posts, and a narcissist is the least of them. I’m sharing these because I felt — I hoped —others might benefit from my experiences: men and their partners. I think partners (be they men or women) should be as fully informed and engaged about what happens and what to expect as the patient.

I found a lot of medical and pseudo-medical (read: quack) advice and descriptions online about prostate cancer, symptoms, and its treatment, but not much of a personal nature. Maybe I didn’t search far enough, but what I wanted to read was what it meant to the person who received the diagnosis and the treatment. How does it feel to wake up every day and look in the mirror, knowing you have cancer? What goes through a person’s mind as they get wheeled into surgery? Or sit for hours in a thin hospital gown, among strangers, awaiting treatment? How should I prepare for these events?

Knowing the technical details and the biology was, of course, important, but how it affected a life in progress mattered equally or more to me. So I decided to post my own.

I’ve tried to document my experiences and emotions in these posts as honestly and openly as I can. It isn’t easy: I’m unaccustomed to writing for the public about myself and the details of my life except in a somewhat removed or neutral manner (like my posts on shaving or my reading). I am normally a very private person when it comes to my body and was reluctant to even mention the diagnosis to close friends and relatives at first. I was raised with the typical inhibitions of a suburban, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon family, and we didn’t talk about body parts, especially those related to sex. Admittedly, that was a long time ago — the Fifties and Sixties often seem like another world, imagined in a book or movie, rather than lived — but the reluctance to do so now remains.

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The Cancer Diaries, Part 6

I’m sitting here, on my back deck, in the late Friday afternoon, beside Susan, trying to take stock of my life over a glass of wine, and read a bit while the light’s still good. I’m 30 days past my surgery and recovering reasonably well, but still three weeks away from my next set of tests, and almost four until I sit down with the urologist and learn if I still have cancer. And what happens next. All the rest of my life is on hold until that meeting.

My father lived to 92, and died of esophageal cancer, caught too late. He might have lived longer, otherwise, although he also had prostate cancer that might have caught up with him instead.  It was a horrible death, one that I also saw take my dear friend, Bill, many years later (fall, 2019). My mother died at 95, living long despite her stroke in 1960. Her father died at 94. I always thought I’d live into my 90s. My genes promised it. But of late, I am not sure I’ll even see 75. My father’s mother also lived into her old age, but his father died younger than her of prostate cancer. Maybe I have his genes.

Sure there may be treatment: radiation and chemotherapy, neither of which is appealling. They have nasty side effects. To what end do I go for treatment if it involves a steady decrease in the quality of life and only saves me a short snippet of time? It’s a bit like the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons. Cancer is the Roadrunner that the Coyote never catches, and gets himself blown up in the process of trying. Sometimes I think of it like the Red Queen’s Race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can simply to stay in the same place. I can’t even make up my mind about how I see it  until that next meeting.

I sit here with a pile of books beside me, trying to read as much as I can to get through all the to-be-read stacks that litter my house. Every day I sit outside with a small stack, sometimes the same books, often changing one or two. Never less than six, never more than ten, each with a bookmark to guide me back the next time I pick it up. There’s a pile or two beside the bed for my nighttime reading, too. Sometimes I augment them with books from my daytime reading.

I don’t know why it matters, but I just don’t want my life to end with so many unread books. Will I ever finish reading Proust? Or Casanova’s diaries? Will I even get to read the latest Murakami, so recently received? I keep wanting to re-read Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, a tough enough task should I live to 90. Now it seems so much further from my grasp. I’m pretty sure I’ll never learn to read Latin, either, despite the shelf of textbooks to teach me.

Last year I read Will Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club. In it, he and his dying mother form a “club” to share and compare how they felt reading the same books together. She had cancer and they spent many hours in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in her palliative bedroom discussing their books. His book is a combination of her story, his, and their views on literature, and about shared memories. It’s very touching. I didn’t really appreciate it as much when I read it as I do now.

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The Cancer Diaries Part 1

I should have started this a while ago. Perhaps when I received the first news something as wrong. But it took a while to really sink in. And then it was upon me. Although this is personal, I wanted to share it, in the hope others might find it useful.

There’s a psychological process called the Kübler-Ross model, or the Five Stages of Grief, which is often applied to cancer and other diseases, but at least for me, it didn’t work that way. Her stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But for me, the first thing was a sense of betrayal.

Yes, betrayal: how can my body let me down like this? I have treated it well for all these decades – okay, not I haven’t been worshipful, but reasonably respectful. I haven’t smoked or eaten mammals for almost 50 years, and I watch what I eat and drink (little junk or processed foods). I don’t drink alcohol to excess, don’t drink liquid sugar (aka soda pop), don’t do drugs. I walk a lot – several kilometers a day usually – and keep my mind active. I keep my teeth in good condition and get a checkup annually. Surely all that should have counted for something.

But the tests don’t lie. My PSA was elevated. Frighteningly so. My body, or at least on part of it, betrayed me.

Not that I really should have been surprised. My father and his father both had prostate cancer. I am third generation and the likelihood of me getting it has always been very high if not a certainty. In hindsight, I wish I could have spoken to my father about it, sought his wisdom, but by the time I learned of it, he was already dying of another cancer.

I had a warning about it several years back when I had non-cancerous prostate problems and minor corrective surgery. I didn’t go through denial after that, or any of the stages as I recall, just hoped it had cured the problem. After all, modern medicine cures so much else.

Apparently not everything.

After betrayal came resignation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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The last walk

Sophie and Bella in the snow“You have to go to the pound. They have a Sheltie there.” Susan called me from work, her voice urgent. One of her clients had told her a Sheltie – Shetland Sheepdog – had been picked up by Animal Control and was in the pound, on Stewart Road about to come up for adoption. She added, “I already have a name for her.”

This was in the late spring of 2008. It had been a couple of years since we had a dog and she knew I missed having one. We had had some great dogs in the past, including a purebred blue merle Sheltie called Wellington. Wellie for short. A beautiful, well mannered, smart and affectionate dog. Robust, working dog type of Sheltie, not one of those overbred scrawny things you see around too often. Wellie was lovely, but died of cancer too soon. It broke our hearts.

But we’d also had some bad luck.The two most recent dogs – a Papillon named Katy and a Corgi named Topper – had been neurotic and difficult. While Katy – a former breeding dog we got at age 6 or 7 – was merely timid. Topper was crazy. Severe separation anxiety made him destroy everything in his presence if we weren’t there to oversee his every minute. Katy lived out her natural life with us, loved for all her strangeness. Topper we had to return to the breeder after a frustrating year trying every tactic and therapy: he chewed up one couch, one chair, one pillow, one pair of shoes, one baseboard, too many. I didn’t think Susan would ever allow us to get another after that.

So we just had cats. I love my cats, but I missed having a dog underfoot, interacting with me. Susan knew it. I missed the companionship, the walks, the unquestioning loyalty and affection of a dog. She liked dogs, but prefers cats, and didn’t really want another dog. Yet she knew how much it meant to me. Her call came as a delightful surprise.

I left the store and drove over to the pound. There she was: a beautiful, tri-colour dog. Long hair, great ruff. Not a Sheltie, though. Close, but too big for one, even for the likes of Wellie. Maybe part. Too small for a Collie. More likely a mix. Calm, a little scared, but she let me check her out, just sat and watched me every moment. Patient. An adult, apparently a mother at least once. I liked her, but it’s not the sort of decision you make alone.

Sophie, Nov. 2008The dog, I was told, had been abandoned, right here in town. The family who owned her moved, and left her tied to a tree. A couple of days later, neighbours called animal control. She was in a kennel with another dog – a bigger, playful, somewhat loopy Shepherd cross who wanted my attention and kept pushing in between us. But I only had eyes for the Sheltie cross. She was beautiful.

I arranged for the officer to hold her until the evening when Susan could join me. As soon as she saw the dog, Susan was in love with her. Sophie, she called her. We never regretted it for a moment after.
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Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me…

When I'm 64 on the ukeTurning 64, as in the 1967 Beatles’ song, once seemed so distant that it it was as remote as flying cars and jet packs. By the time I reached that age, I thought, we’d have a moon base colony, orbiting hotels as in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and were reaching out to the planets. Maybe even a base on Mars by then

None of which had happened, of course, by the time I reached the magical age in the song, and even today it looks remote. But back then, in the late Sixties, the years ahead seemed so full of potential and excitement that anything was possible. What dreams we had. Too bad our politicians didn’t share them.

I always wondered, hearing the song, why the singer was afraid that his partner, his lover, would abandon him. “Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I’m 64?” Was she about to toss him into the street, replace him with a new model (insert your favourite Donald Trump-trophy wife quip here…)?

Sixty four passed me without any such concern.

To be honest, I never thought I’d even reach that age. When you’re 17, you can’t imagine being almost 50 years older. Any more than I can today imagine being 30 years older and doddering about in my nineties. An age to which I fully expect to reach if for no other reason that it may take me that long to finally read all of Ulysses.

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